A Family, an Old House, a Small Town

Everyone in Sonora, a community of about 3,000 people, knew our family. We lived there from 1942 until the early ’50s; my father was active in the Catholic Church, local politics, the Chamber of Commerce, and the Lions, Elks, and Rotary clubs. Lean and on the lanky side, he wore wire-rimmed spectacles and smelled like a mixture of Listerine and Vitalis with a splash of Old Spice. In one neatly pressed side-trouser pocket he kept his small black comb, metal nail-clippers, and his father’s Elgin goldplated pocket watch; in the other, his worn leather wallet, two silver dollars, and a tiny gold halfpence.

Sonora, California early 1950s

Dad first took a job as manager of the Sprouse-Reitz on Washington Street. Mom came in and helped out. She was ten years younger with jet black hair like her mother’s and grandmother’s, and she wore red lipstick and a wide smile. He was the boss, quiet-spoken, good to his employees, pleasant with the customers. She was courteous and friendly, chatty with the regulars. Dad was detailed, particular how the merchandise was displayed and fastidious about keeping his store clean. No half-empty bins, no messy shelves, no litter on the floor. Under his management the dime store doubled in size; he took over the business space next door and expanded the sales crew to ten.

Returning from his daily trek to the post office, he stopped in at Elsbree’s Cigar Store. He sat at the long mahogany bar and visited for ten minutes with Mr. Elsbree, watching reflections in the French imported plate glass mirror and sipping a room temperature orange Nehi. Dad thought if you drank cold drinks on a hot day you just got hotter.

My father ran the register six days a week, walking the block to work in his brimmed felt hat, dark suit, matching vest and striped tie, his muscles hidden under long-sleeved starched white shirts; muscles he acquired from working on the family farm, doing construction, and from years of delivering ice. A businessman now, he was finished breaking his back as a laborer outside in freezing snow and blistering sun. He hated that kind of work, hated that kind of weather. That’s why he left home in the first place. That, and his mother constantly telling him what to do.

Screen Shot 2015-08-20 at 7.30.30 PMOur family lived at 104 Green Street in the old Lepape house now owned by the Segerstrom family (who also owned the historic Sonora Inn and Kelley’s Central Motors and Garage), a white two-story residence right in the center of town that rented for $35 a month, and where I would be born in five years.

The house was behind the Inn and Kelley’s. The upstairs had four bedrooms: our parents’ room faced the front, along with a bathroom with a claw-foot tub. The kids’ rooms were toward the back, the smallest the only upper one with heat. It was so cold during the winter that the girls dressed by the downstairs oil heater so they wouldn’t freeze.

Small, furry brown bats nested in the walls of my sisters’ bedroom. Dad cut holes in the wall to get at them, then chased them around the room with a stick until he killed them—the bats, not my sisters—throwing their bodies out the window and plugging the holes. With their high-pitched chi, chi, chi, the bats looked big and scary flying around the bedroom, but when they were dead on the ground below they looked like poor small mice.

A long linoleum hall led to the staircase and wooden banister that the kids rode halfway to the bottom when our parents weren’t in sight. When I came along, I got down the seventeen stairs by falling. In the living room, white antimacassars and arm protectors rested on the maroon Chesterfield and overstuffed flowered armchair. In the corner stood the upright RCA radio/record cabinet. It was the center of evening family activity, everyone sitting around the radio listening to Fibber McGee & Molly, George Burns and Gracie Allen, and Amos ‘N Andy. Mom loved Jack Benny and Bob Hope. Dad loved Edgar Bergen. The kid’s favorites were the knocking of The Shadow, the creaking door of Inner Sanctum, and The Lone Ranger galloping away with his Indian sidekick Tonto.

pinkie-and-blueboyThe dining room, like many other dining rooms in the 1940s, had pictures of Pinkie and Blue Boy and The End of the Trail—a lithograph of James Earle Fraser’s lone Indian warrior on his weary horse, their defeated profile frozen in time. There was a large mahogany dining room table and Mom’s old-fashioned highboy, where she stored her white Irish table linens, her unfinished sewing projects, my white flannel diapers, and her foil-wrapped U-No candy bars that she hid behind the velvet-lined silverware chest. I don’t know why she bothered hiding them. They taste like chocolate-covered chalk.

Carleen mushroom hunting

Carleen mushrooming

The wide porch ran on three sides. The back portion was enclosed, and stored the mangle where Carleen ironed sheets and pillowcases and where Mom had one of the first electric washers and dryers in town. Daddy put up pantry shelves with doors where Mom kept her canning: fruits from the trees in the yard, vegetables from her garden, field mushrooms (she and the kids hunted for them behind the hill at the grammar school), and her homemade spaghetti sauce and chili. The giant elm tree out front was a hundred years old with a canopy so thick that even when it poured you’d stay dry under it. To the left flowed Sonora Creek, a small tributary of Wood’s Creek, where the first big nuggets of gold were discovered in Sonora’s veins. It was filled with huge leopard frogs, rainbow trout, and wild blackberries until the early fifties, when that section of pristine waters was polluted and slick with oil and car fluids dumped directly into it through a waste pipe by mechanics from the Central Garage. Alongside the house were fruit trees: cherry, plum, a pear, apple, peach, and a huge black fig. On the side grew Mom’s victory garden.

Mom raised chickens, the family’s source of meat during the war; she sold the eggs or traded them for flour and sugar. When she butchered the hens, it was Betty’s job to collect the chopped-off heads while the headless Leghorns chased Claudia, who ran screaming around the yard. Mom put the bodies in a big pan of boiling water to soften the feathers, and Larry and Carleen had to pluck and clean them. Larry also had to clean the big metal chicken house out back, a job he hated more than anything. You weren’t supposed to keep chickens if you lived within the city limits, so when the rooster crowed before daybreak, Daddy went out and whacked off its head. Each Thanksgiving we bought a live turkey. Mom raised ducks too, but they flew away every year.

An unpublished excerpt from the full book, BEHIND THESE DOORS, A FAMILY MEMOIR.
© August 2016, Catherine Sevenau

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  1. This is such an idyllic picture…….I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop.
    At least you had a good start!

  2. Your memories are so well written, it is easy and fun to be drawn it to reading them in their entirety. Did I ever remember to tell you I shopped at your dad’s 5&10 cent store on Haight? Would have been when you were there; from 1945 thru 1954.

  3. Another beautifully written piece, Catherine. I felt like I was right there: in Sonora, the store and the house.

  4. Dana Hoffman says:

    This brings me home as well. Born in 72, a Hoffman and Cavalieri, I too dressed by the old radiant heater in the winter. Thank you for sharing this.

  5. What a warm nostalgic look back at your growing up years.

  6. You were able to bring the story to life. Very fine writing

  7. Jean E. McQuady says:

    Small world – the Segerstrom family was also very involved with American Field Service (AFS) just like your brother and I and your son.

  8. Yvonne Willis O'Daniel says:

    Wow, I wasn’t born until “61” but this really brought me back to Sonora. My oldest sister Frankye worked for your dad at Sprouse Reitz

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